The Dream of the Nineties

Salivating at the last decade of easy living

In reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, I was struck by a tiny detail about her time in Boston as a statue artist that made me feel a deep sense of despair familiar to many millennials.

It’s simple, really. It’s that she worked as a statue artist and was able to pay her bills. Y’know those ones who wear makeup, dress like the Statue of Liberty or the like, and stand stock still? Occasionally, she’d have a shift or two at a coffee shop, and she lived in a communal house, but still. She paid her own way to live in Boston by busking as a statue artist.

I’ve busked. A lot. I make $100 on a good day, and at least $50 on a bad one. But as best I could figure, if I went full-time on busking, I’d be able to make about $1500 a month. That would pay for my rent and my car insurance and a box of atulfo mangos; nothing more. My rent is very, very reasonable for a 1-bedroom in Vancouver. Maybe I could find a roommate situation and also be able to afford many more groceries? Amanda Palmer made this work, though. And I guess I’m wondering: how do none of my numbers work, but hers did, and all that’s different is that 20 years has passed?

Or consider something else that gave me shivers recently. It’s the first scene of the first episode of Portlandia, where — as an aside throughout a musical number titled “Dream of the 90s” — they recount a world as alien to me as anything in a Marvel film:

Jason: Remember when people were content to be unambitious? Sleep til 11, just hang out with their friends? And have no occupation whatsoever, maybe working a couple hours a week at a coffee shop?

Donnie: I thought that died out a long time ago.

Jason: Not in Portland. Portland is the city where young people go to retire.

Being a millennial means never being able to retire, but certainly not when we’re young. But yet we still remember the 90s, when it was apparently possible to do both. It’s a foggy, dreamlike remembrance, but maybe that’s appropriate. The 90s seem close enough to touch, until you do, and the dream turns nightmarish. Inevitably, you’re left fending off ghouls screeching about your entitlement.

A lot has changed since that fateful decade, and it just takes a little math to show. I am sorry in advance, because many of us have faced this horrible calculus many times. But it’s important we walk down this road together, and imagine what it would take to live as Amanda Palmer or the Portlandians did.

I figured I could make $1500 a month busking. That’d be great. Of course, that’d only be in the summer. I do live in Canada, after all. But let’s pretend that’s not a problem. And let’s assume I take all this money under the table, as is tradition as a busker.

Let’s consider expenses. If my rent was $500 a month (which is a big if), could I live on just another $1000 a month? Not with a car, nor with the hope of ever discharging student debt. I might have to bump up the total budget another $500, to $2000 a month.

But that’s — well, that’s a $35,000 a year job. They don’t exactly hand those out. That’s not a retail job, and certainly not a coffee shop job. It seems that I got really lucky by getting good at fiddle, and I still could barely cut it. Everyone else, apparently, would have to be come a white-collar worker to live with equal thrift as Amanda Palmer did in the 90s.

But if you’re working 9-5 just to live with 3 other people, what space do you have to make the art that she did? To find something in life worth doing other than just surviving? The answer, I’m discovering, is “not much.”

My dad encouraged my fiddle playing so that I could make ends meet if I needed to. I kept my side of the bargain up, and got good enough to earn as much as any busker can.

The rest of the world changed. Now, when we practice the art of asking, we do so in order to survive. Our hands are always outstretched. And I’m sick of it.